I kept waiting for him to show up for the first couple of days when I was back to work. Then it was the first couple of weeks. But then I forced myself to stop hoping. It was stupid really, I know that now, but every single person who walked through the door could have been him until I looked up – proving to myself that it wasn't. All the time I wondered what he meant. What exactly was I right about? That question nearly drove me crazier than Benny has ever done.
Going back to work knowing that everyone knew I was a complete nut-job was hell. They had me doped up on some drug or other for a few days in the hospital – turned me into a vegetable and weaned me back down to 'an appropriate dose' over the course of my stay. It was horrible. Then, to add insult to injury, they told Eva about it because apparently crazies aren't allowed doctor-patient privileges like privacy, and I can't be trusted to take pills on my own. Being reduced to the status of a minor swallowed the last remnants I had of feeling like a normal person. Well, that gig's up. I'm clearly nowhere near functional. Although, maybe they were right about not trusting me to take my pills; I need my counting to distract from the things that I see, even they don't understand that. I'm not giving it up lightly. So for the last fortnight, I've been acting like a cat with my pills, pretending to swallow them and spitting them out later when Eva isn't looking. That's symptomatic too, isn't it? Refusal to take medication – stubborn avoidance of the fact that anything's wrong?
At work I act unresponsive because that's what they expect on beta-blockers, but my mind has me wanting to double-tap every item in the place and play the triangle-game until I don't even remember Joe's name. They all treat me like I'm five again; all I want to do is scream. I feel God owes me a BAFTA for my zombie performance, but higher up the list than that – I'd take my life back. It really isn't peanuts anymore, it's gone beyond a joke.
But that's not the worst bit. What really stings, is the fact that I found out Amy was ok from the local paper. Joe didn't even bother to let me know, but I have my suspicions he was the detective they talked about being suspended following the abusive arrest. I was right though – it was the electrician, and they got a confession out of him about what he did to his sister – said he never intended to hurt Amy – he was trying to make amends. That was why I didn't get a bump – his intentions were pure after all. Somewhere in all of that is everything I was right about.
It's a Monday morning when I finally do crack. We've had a stock delivery, new packets of coins from the bank and a queue full of businessmen with desires that aren't as repressed as they'd like them to be. I just stare at the lot of them, letting the images wash over me without so much as a flinch, and ask if they want cream on top. I am Mr Coffee. I steam, I percolate, I froth, all in a variety of sizes and I'll even smile while I do it, just don't expect that to be real. It's a big order – they don't ask individually, but bunch it together into one. The leader of the gang pays with cash and I need to give him the change that's sealed into one of those unopenable plastic bank bags. I'm unaware of pulling the bag out of the till until my fingers are straining at the plastic and there's that dull stretching pop that comes so suddenly my hands spring wide and coins fly free everywhere. Everywhere. Clatter, clatter-clatter. Splash. Award winning latte floods across the counter, and I laugh. I fold at the waist and laugh until it hurts, even though I'm being glared at, even though I want to find the coins, even though there's coffee waterfalling over the side and three customers now with drinks down their shirts.
Gabby – ever sweet, understanding Gabby who should avoid high powered magnets unless she wants more holes in her face, scowls like only a catty teenage girl can. The only though that goes through my head is that's it, I'm fired, and I really think I am because when I get asked about this, I'm not going to say I understand the error of my ways. I'm not going to appreciate that there were better courses of action to take. I'm not going to acknowledge that this is not good customer service, because I don't care anymore. Truth is, I'm relieved. Gabby hustles me into the stock room, looking quite menacing. If I didn't know she wasn't thinking it, I'd be worried she was going to lock me in and beat me up, but it's clear to see she's more disgusted than angry. That's an ego-boost if ever I saw one.
"Just – just stock take, will you? Do you think you can do that Adam?"
She doesn't wait for an answer, which is probably a good thing. I'm left in the little walk-in cupboard staring at the clipboard that hangs off the back of the door, suddenly not laughing anymore. I used to be her supervisor, before I thought that I could help. Sighing, I start the counting, checking items off as I go. This will take a long time, but hell, at least it's something I'm good at.
I check off numbers of boxes with numbers of items inside until my head is nothing but numbers that don't attach to anything. Fifteen of twelve, four of three hundred and seventy five, one of me. Hours pass and I'm aware of every second because my watch is there counting them away like tiny grains of sand. I could be buried underneath them all. When the businessmen leave, she props the door open to keep an eye on me. Maybe she thinks I'll start snorting the sugar, or try to drink the cleaning fluid.
When lunchtime comes around, I hear a familiar voice out by the counter, but ignore it until Gabby pops her head around the door to say she's going on her break. She pauses in the doorway and I look up from the open box of kitchen towel.
"I called your aunt."
I stare at her, teeth gritted. Eva gave them contact numbers, which are now pinned proudly to the wall of the staff section. People to call if Adam flips out. My aunt is right there next to the armed response unit. Ok, so that's not true, but Christ – since when did I become the infant Godzilla? Is laughing really enough reason to call my aunt? Maybe next time I smile she'll call my mother to come and take me home early.
I just nod passively because I'm worried about blowing up in her face. Maybe this is all perfectly reasonable behaviour. Maybe I'm just paranoid. Gabby pulls a guilty smile and I know that it isn't reasonable. I know she's thinking I'm a washed-up sad-case, and that this is so awkward. I bet she's wondering what happened to Dean – thinking that I probably scared him off. I did, didn't I? Even if he was already paid for. Maybe she's not even too surprised though. She always thought I was odd. She reaches into the room for her coat and snags it off the hook by the door, one hand reaching into the pocket to pull out her lighter and cigarettes.
"I'm taking an hour, so you need to cover the floor. It's quiet at the moment," she says. The implication is that even I shouldn't be able to fuck it up. I nod again and she decides there's no point hanging around waiting for a response I'm evidently not going to give and walks away, shaking her head.
"Adam? I brought you some lunch, dear. Your mother made it for you." My aunt is peering over the counter, trying to see where I am, but from here all she can really see is the door. "It's chicken," she continues and I shuffle further back into the stock cupboard. I can't handle this today. I'm twenty three. I don't need my mother to make my lunch, or my aunt to bring it to me. "It's very nice. I ate one of the sandwiches on the way over on the bus. I hope you don't mind. I got hungry." I hear her rifling through a plastic bag. I'm so humiliated. "And then there's a chunk of cake, and an apple. You've got to eat your fruit, Adam. An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
If I close my eyes she might just disappear, but I doubt it.
I hear the bell on the door jangle and hope it's signifying people leaving rather than coming in. Hearing one of the bar stools scrape out across the ground, I realise my hopes have been trashed and peer through the crack in the door to judge how long I can take to pull myself together.
"Adam," my aunt hisses, "You have a customer!"
I do indeed. I have two and one is a little blonde girl. My stomach ties itself in knots, just watching her. She's alive. She's not hideously maimed. She's fiddling with the bowl of sugar sticks. Maybe all I was right about was it being Benny. I'm trying to ignore the man she's with, but my heart has started thumping like someone's turned up the bass. He's not in work clothes and I like him even better soft and casual. I still have that jumper he gave me.
Joe gives a low laugh. "Where's he got to?"
He shouldn't even be here – not after two weeks of nothing. He can't just come in here as if nothing's happened.
I see my aunt's shoulders shrug. "Oh heavens, I don't know. His mother didn't bring him up like this, that much I can tell you."
That muted laugh of his comes again. "He's usually very reliable," he says. "Unless he's distracted. Maybe I should go back there and find him…"
My aunt swivels on her seat to look at him properly, interest clearly peaked because not many people talk about me as if they know me like he just did. She extends her hand to shake and I groan. "I'm Edith, it's nice to meet you. How do you know my nephew?"
"Joseph – Joe. I'm… a friend. I'm glad to meet some of Adam's family given that he's met most of mine already. This is my niece, Amy," he says, moving closer to her as she stands up on the seat and tackles him into a hug, giggling. I can only really see the back of his head.
I stand up as well, hovering in the doorway. The interaction that's taking place has me nervous. I know Edie's going to read something into that pause of his. He has no business getting to know my family. What does he think he's doing? What does he mean 'already'? Arms fold across my chest defensively.
Edith smiles. "You should come over for Sunday lunch and get to know us. Adam never brings his friends home."
That's it. I stride across to where they're sitting, practically vibrating with nerves. "H-he can't come. He's busy."
There's a pause that I hardly notice because Joe's looking me over as if he wants to commit every part of me to memory before he raises an eyebrow. "I'm not busy at all. Sunday lunch would be lovely."
It feels as if the world's ending. I don't think he realises what he's doing.
"Have a sandwich Adam and stop being so rude. Your mother made them specially."
"I don't want a sandwich, Edie."
"You never eat," she declares. "So skinny – would you look at you? Scraggly little thing."
Joe's folds his arms around his chest, shrugging deeper into the sleeves of his ever tactile jacket, smirking. My skin is burning bright red and my hands are tapping out a tune under the counter. "Can I get you a drink? We have a promotion on flavoured syrups today. Perhaps you'd like to try a cinnamon latte?" I beam, my smile thousand watt and totally fake.
Joe makes an incredulous face and I swallow. Of course he doesn't want a cinnamon latte – he's Mr No Fancy Crap. "What time on Sunday?" he asks, turning back to my aunt as if I'd never interrupted the conversation, though his hand sneaks out and pushes my tapping fingers firmly down against the counter. I stare at his hand on top of mine, stunned by his gall.
"Usually around one," Edith says smugly, picking up her large bag and rifling through all of the detritus inside to find a scrap of paper and a pen. I swear, she keeps the kitchen sink in that bag. "I'll give you the address."
Amy giggles at me, leaning her weight on the counter top and prodding me with a sharp, bony little finger. "I want a cinnamon latte!"
Joe shakes his head, pulling her back from the counter a little bit, hand removing itself from mine. "No you don't sweetie. Coffee's yucky. You can have a hot chocolate with lots of cream and marshmallows instead, ok?" he offers, looking at me to confirm the order.
"Mmhm, I suppose so," she nods, slumping down in her seat and going back to fiddling with the sticks of sugar; I watch her, itching to grab the lot and hide them well out of her reach. She doesn't need to be touching them all. They're all upright and separated by colour. Why would she possibly want to mix them all up? She looks up at me and beckons for me to come closer with an exaggerated gesture. "Uncle Joe says you rescued me," she whispers, loud enough that half the café can hear and prods my cheek. I flinch back and Joe almost chokes on a laugh so I scowl at him. I'm too flustered to answer her.
Kids are strange. I don't understand them. They're ridiculously unpredictable and they actually think. Not like a dog, well not really. They're harder to understand. Kids play tricks on you, and laugh. At least dogs do all of that silently and do more or less what you tell them.
"Amy, don't poke Adam, it's not nice." He's watching me again, like he used to when he came in those first few times, but it makes me more uncomfortable now. I don't know what he wants but I'm past hoping that it's me.
I busy myself making hot chocolate with all the trimmings. Hot milk, chocolate powder, a mug the size of her head, cream, and damn it, I'm making a smiley face out of pink marshmallows in the cream. There's something wrong with me.
I set the mug down and her eyes boggle, "Wow."
Trying to score points with Joe by making Amy like me, makes me feel so cheap. I can't stand kids. Irritated with myself I scowl at him, ignoring both Edie and Amy.
"Why are you here?" I ask. My voice is tight; I feel vulnerable. He's already effectively thrown me out of his life – here I am giving him the chance to do it again. Joe stares back – crazy as it seems, I know he's counting seconds because he pulls his eyes away within my time limit, but he doesn't answer my question. He shoots a look at my aunt.
"I'll have a coffee please Adam. Double espresso would be nice."
I scowl and look away, clattering things as I go about fixing it for him. In my peripheral vision, I see Edie's eyebrows raise a full centimetre. She gathers her bag together, fitting back of the items she'd spread across the counter to find that scrap of paper, even though half of it looks like it should be in a bin. "I think I'm going to head off home," she says rather loudly, making the tension between us all the more obvious. "It was lovely to meet you Joe, Amy." She gives the little girl a wave, and she beams back, then my aunt makes her way out, leaving her signature trail of my destroyed life.
I slam the coffee down in front of Joe without the saucer, just like he had it on the night before I figured this all out and his eyebrows shift a notch. "I get the feeling you're not having a good day."
"God hates me," I grumble, annoyed when my eyes flick up to find his. "I'm not having a good decade."
The man has the cheek to smile, but he breaks off eye contact to check on Amy. She's busy drowning in marshmallows and cream. I've probably consigned her to late-onset diabetes with that drink. Joe clears his throat slightly, voice betraying his lack of focus. "You have a job. You have a nice flat. You have a dog. You have a nice family. You have guys chucking themselves at you. Excuse me, but just now, your life doesn't seem so bad."
I grab a cloth and wipe the surfaces down with so much efficiency it's vicious. "I haven't had two days in a row off for five years unless you count getting hospitalised or arrested, despite that, I'm about to get fired." I drop my voice, casting a look at Amy, "There's a paedophile living in my shower, my Aunt's way of dealing with my lack of love life is to fix me up with a rent boy for the evening, I'm finally getting over my crush on my straight best-friend, everyone at work thinks I'm insane, my flatmate keeps mashing up beta-blockers and dissolving them in my tea, it's my dead brother's birthday tomorrow, I'm obsessing over a guy who thinks I'm a complete freak and even my dog wants to dump me. But you know what the really sad bit is? I didn't even get to have sex with the rent boy because I was too busy throwing up. Oh yeah, Joe, my life is great."
His head is down as he stares at his coffee and as I watch I notice his shoulders moving back and forth, almost imperceptibly vibrating. "It's not funny," I snarl, eyes narrowed.
"I'm sorry. You're right. It's not," but when he does look up he's smiling broadly, looking disgustingly handsome as ever.
"Stop laughing." I fold my arms across my chest, feeling defensive and rattled. I don't like being laughed at, at the best of times. Having Joe do it makes me feel about an inch tall. "It's my bloody life." I stand up, shooting him a glare before I turn away. "And you can stay out of it."
"Adam," he coaxes. "Adam I'm sorry."
"No you're not." I grumble, "You're never sorry. You come in here after two weeks of nothing – when I was worried about everything, treated like some complete psychopath and you expect me to accept that you're sorry when you can't even stop laughing long enough to say it?"
His grin slips and he shoves his untouched coffee away. "..Yes." He clears his throat awkwardly, "But that's unreasonable. I was trying to keep you out of the mess of a trial. I was busy being told I can't have my job back. I'm sorry you've had a rough time of it, but believe me it would have been better than the grilling you'd get if I had let you get put up as a witness. Didn't want to give them the chance to pin this on you."
I shake my head and don't say anything. That makes sense, even if I wish it didn't. "Right," I mutter, still annoyed with him, but feeling my anger melt. I stop wiping and just look at him, not sure what to say. Sighing, I let that familiar tension flicker between us, building as the seconds pass. It's as if I've forgiven him, and maybe I have but I don't think I'm going to tell him that yet. I reach seven seconds and look away.
Joe's fist slams onto the counter top and he growls in frustration. "Oh for fucksake Adam, will you just look at me?"
Amy giggles, presumably because he swore, but the sound only distracts me momentarily.
"…What?" I demand, completely confused. Despite what he asked, I can't look at him. My skin has dissolved into a dense mass of tingling sensation at the tone in his voice. Who does he think he is anyway; he can't order me about like that. "I don't under- What?"
I double tap the counter and he reaches out to still my fingers, covering mine with his warm hand. "Don't start that." His fingers grip onto mine and then with a tiny movement I realise he's stroking at my skin. I twist my hand in his grasp trying to pull away but instead my fingers latch onto his as if I daren't let him go. He's got me so confused.
"Christ, Adam," his voice is a harsh whisper and as I glance up his face is a pained frown. I loosen my fingers instantly at the searing realisation that I was holding his hand, but he doesn't make it easy. I pull away and tap before I can stop myself.
His hand is on mine again. "No tapping," he says on a dull smirk and my head gives a spasmodic shake fuelled by the excess energy – the need to move.
"No," I mutter, staring at his hand on mine, almost expecting the charge I feel coming off his skin to be visible, before I let my eyes slip up to meet his. "No tapping."
His voice mellows my peaking annoyance. The sigh he gives as he explains makes it all alright again. "You're a tough man to try to kiss, Adam Grey."
It clicks then – the reason he's never followed through. He's been waiting for me to close that hovering gap that keeps appearing between us– to show I'm not just going along with it but am actually reciprocating of my own volition. Maybe to show that I'm different to that boy in the bike shed with his trousers round his ankles. But I never have shown him that. I've been too convinced that I was wrong – that he was straight. I've always shoved him off or looked away, backed down. This look, now, is the most plain it's ever been. He's always been holding himself back and he doesn't want to anymore.
"Oh," I mouth, feeling stupid, confused – flustered. I frown, turning away to put the cloth somewhere else, embarrassment peaking, but he stands up and grabs my wrist, forcing me to face him again.
For a minute he stares at me so intensely I think he's going to hit me for being so obtuse, but then he doesn't and I realise I haven't got a bump. He does something else instead – leans forwards notching my heartbeat faster with every centimetre he approaches because I can taste his breath and his smell, feel his body heat even though he's really too far away for that. My jaw tilts up automatically, mouth open without him even asking. When he stills completely three inches away I reach out to grab his collar, because if he pulls away now then the next murder I see won't be a bump, it will be me killing him. He smiles, relaxing as he nods slightly, realising I'm prepared to finally take what I want. I close the gap, letting our lips meet fully and very much with intent, even if I'm not sure why this is happening.
My breath skitters out of me as I nod in return and when his lips respond to mine there is no oxygen in my body. He is tenderness itself – gently seeking lips that react to my shaking, spluttered breathing, asking, never telling, yet dragging me deeper through the volition of my own body. The only other point of contact is his hand on my wrist, and even that loosens, because nothing else exists. All too soon the bar is far too much in the way. I haven't been kissed to the point of trembling – to the point of needing to sustain contact, for years. I've never been so reluctant to break off. It's never felt so odd to be alone when the touch is gone, because the truth is I haven't been kissed like that at all. Not ever.
"Damn," I whisper. He swallows, nods, looking at me as if I'm all his world has narrowed to. His breathing is heavy – his eyes are not exactly in focus as his hand comes up to brush against my neck; his fingers curling on contact with my skin as he tries to draw me near, make his desire more than obvious. They mirror mine exactly.
There's a damp crash as Amy knocks her hot chocolate over, splashing the two of us with the sugary mess. "Woops," she whispers, looking incredibly guilty as I turn to look at her, with her hands over her ears in some cartoon-like gesture of disaster. The tightness of my jeans subsides as the world crushes in on us again and for the second time that day I laugh over spilt drinks.
I grab a cloth and Joe clears his throat. "Amy..." he scolds half-heartedly, shooting me another look. For once I'm more important to him than his niece. He looks down at the mess, absently righting her cup.
I can only grin at him. I, Adam Grey, legendary coward, master chameleon, slightly crazed, soon to be ex-coffee-guy who you should probably cross the street to avoid, just witnessed the most handsome man I've ever seen in my life blush seven kinds of red at once, all because of me. Today, God ran out of peanuts.
A/N: Two things – one – really, really, really sorry about the huge gap in updates. I hope some of you are still with me.
Two – I know the end is really, disgustingly out of the blue here and there are a fair few loose ends, but I am considering turning Adam and Joe into series characters, which is why I have left things as they are. I feel that to resolve issues now would either require a lot of rushing, or a whole new event for them to be worked out during (…excuse my bad grammar), and as there is a fair amount of scope for different plots with them, I figured it could stretch to at least another story. However, I have a very bad track record with sequels so please don't hold your breath; I don't want to be responsible for any deaths!
Also, this whole thing needs reworking – various bits don't tie together as I would like them to, so when I get some mythical free time I will be going back and fiddling. Please criticise! Tell me what annoys you – what works, or more helpfully what doesn't etc. etc. etc.
Thanks for sticking with me and being so enthusiastic!